Saturday, April 7, 2012

Maugham Round Up (Part 2 of 2)


Arguably Maugham's most famous novel, but sadly, for me, one going on that list of "falls short of epic status" classics I've read over the years. It's not a huge list I've made but it will be kept company by my memories of reading Anna Karenina... yep, I admit, I was one girl who didn't swoon over the tragic love story but instead wanted to smack spoiled Anna and (in my best Cher voice) exclaim "Snap out of it!" Maugham's slight misogynistic bent continues in parts here, well maybe not quite misogyny since I don't know if I'd go so far as to say his male characters hate women, but they do tend to blame a good deal of their problems on the womenz.... to which I say to those male characters, "Way to step up and accept your part in your life!" Ugh. I do find it funny that Maugham wrote one male character labeling one of my favorite plays, Henrik Ibsen's The Doll House as "nonsense and filth" (the plot of this play is centered around a woman who at a dinner party one night just drops it on her husband in front of all their friends that she feels she's meant for more than housework and doting on her husband so she announces she's leaving him. The rest of the play is basically a study of a marriage, and her husband working through the shock of such a statement, trying to figure out where the hell these feelings came from... powerful stuff!) But yeah, funny that Maugham would use his characters to label such a plot about a woman yearning for independence as "filth and nonsense" ;-)

Philip Stanley, the central character in Of Human Bondage, is a bookish, socially awkward guy who, like many, struggles to find his place in the world. His struggles are exacerbated by the presence of his club foot. His club foot and limp from said deformed foot causes his relationships with people to suffer because so many are "put off" by what they find to be grotesque or weird (like he chose such a disability for himself!). Philip's uncle William, a vicar, and his wife Louisa (actually my favorite character in the story) encourage him to become a minister, figuring that within the church he will find a solid, respectable career that will not require too much physical exertion. The marriage of William and Louisa, as it was depicted, made me sad for Louisa at times, but other times it cracked me up:

It was a large black stove that stood in the hall and was only lighted if the weather was very bad and the Vicar had a cold. It was not lighted if Mrs. Carey had a cold. Coal was expensive.
I also found the vicar and his wife to be very similar to Mr. and Mrs. Collins from Pride and Prejudice:

It was extraordinary that after thirty years of marriage, his wife could not be ready in time on Sunday morning. At last she came, in black satin; the Vicar did not like colours in a clergy-man's wife at any time, but on Sundays he was determined that she should wear black; now and then, in conspiracy she would venture a white feather or a pink rose in her bonnet, but the Vicar insisted that it should disappear; he said he would not go to church with the scarlet woman; Mrs. Carey sighed as a woman but obeyed as a wife. 

 And this idea of the church life for Philip is seconded by the headmaster at Philip's school:

The headmaster hesitated a moment, and then, idly drawing lines with a pencil on the blotting paper in front of him, went on. "I'm afraid your choice of professions will be rather limited. You naturally couldn't go in for anything that required physical activity." Philip reddened to the roots of his hair, as he always did when any reference was made to his club-foot. Mr. Perkins looked at him gravely. "I wonder if you're not oversensitive about your misfortune. Has it ever struck you to thank God for it?" Philip looked up quickly. His lips tightened. He remembered how for months, trusting in what they told him, he had implored God to heal him as He had healed the Leper and made the Blind to see. "As long as you accept it rebelliously it can only cause you shame. But if you looked upon it as a cross that was given you to bear because your shoulders were strong enough to bear it, a sign of God's favour, then it would be a source of happiness to you instead of misery. 
"Portrait Of A Boy Reading" by Edmund C. Tarbell (1913)

My favorite quote in Of Human Bondage, mainly because it reminded me so much of my own childhood and also because Maugham so perfectly explains the development of a bookworm :-) :

He forgot the life about him. He had to be called two or three times before he would come to dinner. Insensibly, he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading; he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment...He did not read always with enjoyment but invariably with perseverance. He was eager for self-improvement. He felt himself very ignorant and very humbled.

While in school, Philip manages to develop a good friendship with the most popular boy at his school for a time. Their friendship reminded me of that between the boys of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The nerdy-guy-best-friends-with-sporty-guy theme was very similar. Though I wonder about Maugham's choice to name the sporty guy Rose. A guy would have to be very secure with himself not to get razzed for that name in school and become the most popular guy to boot! 

So the thing that stood out to me about Philip is how he's at his best when he has just one thing to focus all his attention on. He becomes obsessive easily. At first he's a decent student because, well, there's not a lot else going for him at that time. But then he meets sporty guy Rose and he starts having so much fun "hanging with the guys" that his grades start to slip. When the intensity of that new friendship starts to wane and Rose loses interest in Philip, Philip hits the books again. But down the road, he meets up with his waitress lady love and once again, nothing else matters. This, incidentally, is what kinda killed the story for me. I don't find  much to swoon over in regards to hard core clinger type relationships or people with rollercoaster emotions.  I guess because I've been in those types of relationships myself and I remember how truly EXHAUSTING it is! I liked bookish Philip, when he was strictly in his contemplative state. His relationship side was a little tiring for me.

When I read a book I seem to read with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning to me, and it becomes part of me; I've got out of the book all that's any use to me, and I can't get anything more if I read it a dozen times. You see, it seems to me, one's like a closed bud, and most of what one reads and does has no effect at all; but there are certain things that have a peculiar significance for one, and they open a petal; and the petals open one by one, and at last the flower is there. 


"You know," she answered at last, "happiness is never quite what one expects it to be. I hardly hoped for so much, but I didn't imagine it quite as it is."
~~ Bertha Ley Craddock,
 early in her marriage to Edward. 

Summary: "On her 21st birthday, when she comes into her deceased father's money, Bertha Ley announces, to the dismay of her former guardian, that she is going to marry 27 year-old Edward Craddock, her steward. Herself a member of the landed gentry, Bertha has been raised to cultivate an "immoderate desire for knowledge" and to understand, and enjoy, European culture of both past and present ages. In particular, during long stays on the Continent, she has learned to appreciate Italy's tremendous cultural heritage. A "virtuous" girl, her views on womanhood are thoroughly traditional. She has no doubts about her role in life, which will be to serve and obey her future husband. When Bertha encourages reluctant Edward Craddock, whom she has known since their childhood, to propose to her, she is certain that she will find absolute fulfillment and happiness in her marriage, even if it means abandoning city life and its pleasures for the Kentish coast "to live as her ancestors had lived, ploughing the land, sowing and reaping; but her children, the sons of the future, would belong to a new stock, stronger and fairer than the old. The Leys had gone down into the darkness of death, and her children would bear another name. She felt in herself suddenly the weariness of a family that had lived too long; she knew she was right to choose new blood to mix with the old blood of the Leys. It needed the freshness and youth, the massive strength of her husband, to bring life to the decayed race." --Wikipedia

Of all the Maugham books I've read to date, this has been my favorite, though it's not one of his most familiar works. The tone reminded me of that in his novel Theatre. Bertha Ley, who becomes Mrs. Craddock, is a young girl who gets SO caught up in the fantasy she creates in her mind of what marriage is like that she ends up sabotaging what she actually has with Mr. Craddock. Bertha, who comes from one of those English families with a great, respectable family name with no more money attached to it, finds she's surprisingly inherited a good deal of money from her father following his death. For reasons not explained all that well, other than Bertha being enamored with his looks, Bertha accepts a marriage proposal from local landowner / farmer Edward Craddock, much to the shock of her titled family. She goes into it with this idea that she'll be a cute little housewife making fruit pies and tending to cute, dimpled babies while her husband puts in a 9-5 (so she thinks) in the fields. She pictures greeting him with a glass of lemonade and a chaste kiss on the cheek at the end of each workday. So, days after the wedding:

"Have you really not thought of our honeymooon, foolish boy," asked Bertha.
"No!" {Edward}
"Well, I have. I've made up my mind and settled it all. We're going to Italy and I mean to show you Florence and Pisa and Sienna. It'll be simply heavenly. We won't go to Venice because it's too sentimental. Self-respecting people can't make love in gondolas at the end of the nineteenth century. Oh, I long to be with you in the South, beneath the blue sky and the countless stars at night."
"I've never been abroad before," he said without much enthusiasm. 
But her fire was quite enough for two. "I know, and I shall have the pleasure of unfolding it all to you. I shall enjoy it more than I ever have before; it'll all be so new to you. And we can stay six months if we like."
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," he cried. "Think of the farm."
"Oh bother the farm, it's our honeymoon, sposo mio."
"I don't think I could possibly stay away more than a fortnight."
"What nonsense! We can't go to Italy for a fortnight. The farm can get on without you."
"And in January and February too, when all the lambing is coming on." {Edward}
He did not want to distress Bertha, but really half his lambs would die if he were not there to superintend their entrance into the world.
"But you must go," said Bertha."I've set my heart upon it."
He looked down for awhile, looking rather unhappy. "Wouldn't a month do?" he asked,"I'll do anything you really want, Bertha." 
But his obvious dislike to the suggestion cut Bertha's heart. She was only inclined to be stubborn when she saw he might resist her, and his first word of surrender made her veer round penitently. 
"What a selfish beast I am!" she said. "I don't want to make you miserable, Eddie. I thought it would please you to go abroad and I'd planned it all so well. But we won't go; I hate Italy. Let's just go up to town for a fortnight like two country bumpkins."
"Oh, but you wouldn't like that." {Edward}
"Of course I shall. I like everything you like. D'you think I care where we go as long as I'm with you? You're not angry with me, darling, are you?" 
Mr. Craddock was good enough to intimate that he was not. 

Don't fall for it dude! It's a trap!! I guarantee you this moment will come up in a fight later! :-P

After a few months of mostly platonic, blissful interactions with the hubby, reality starts to put a chip in her polish. She starts to see that farming is not an easy 9-5. Her husband inherits part ownership of the land after marrying Bertha and works his tail off to build up what he finds was a pretty run down estate. He's up before dawn and home long after dark trying to turn their small financial assets into perpetual riches. Bertha wants to spend her days "hanging out" with him but Edward, being slightly older and perhaps more grounded in reality, tries to explain that while chillin' is all well and good, some work in life is required to make the downtime financially possible... particularly when Bertha enjoys pretty, luxe things around her! He tries to indulge her though -- he takes her to the theater, to museums, to parties he doesn't care about, he does his best to be obliging and keep a smile on her face. She doesn't get it though and begins to see her husband as oblivious, passionless, a poorly educated, socially awkward country goober. Finding herself falling into a serious depression over what seemed to me like a non-issue, she trys to self medicate by making multiple trips to sunny Italy and chic France, immersing herself in culture, shopping and recreation, bemoaning to others of her dull, neglectful, boarish husband. Even when Edward develops an interest in local politics and runs for an office to try to bring some change for the better to the community, she quietly tries to discourage him because she thinks he's too stupid to be successful in the office and he'll just end up being an embarrassment to her!

I couldn't help but think "poor Edward!". Mrs. Craddock is an example of the type of woman who ends up hating the very things about her husband that first made him appealing to her. Bertha loved that Edward was so outdoorsy and "of the earth" instead of being absorbed in mens' fashion or going on and on about politics. To me, aside from Edward being a little old school in his ideas about women (again, Maugham writes a male character that loves his women in the kitchen or being pretty but quiet), he seemed like a decent guy. He worked hard day and night to improve his wife's family's property, he wasn't an alcoholic, he didn't smack her around, didn't run around on her. Maybe he did get consumed with day to day responsibilities and neglect his husband time with Bertha at times, but who here is not guilty of being so distracted by daily duties that they sometimes forget the importance of time with their spouse / partner? I don't think running off the way Bertha did without really trying to explain herself was the answer. But (playing devil's advocate here) Edward's philosophy might not have helped the situation:
He was the best humored of men and Bertha's bad temper never disturbed his equilibrium. He knew that women felt irritable at times, but if a man gave 'em plenty of rope they'd calm down after a bit. "Women are like chickens," he'd told a friend, "Give 'em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire netting so they can't get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice." There is nothing like knowledge of farming and an acquaintance with the habits of domestic animals to teach a man how to manage his wife.

Nope, that probably didn't help :-P

In some ways, Edward reminded me of my own husband, who told me early on, when we first started dating, "Look, guys can be dense sometimes, we don't do the whole "hints" thing that well. Just flat out say what you want and we can go from there." (this was just a general comment during a conversation - not him chewing me out about anything lol). That's what I was thinking of, reading about Bertha running off to different countries, hoping her husband would see how much he needed her around, but never explaining that she had actually left him. She would just say "oh, I'm not feeling well, I need to go to the sea" but in her mind would say "I'm not coming back". Edward would take his wife at his word, assuming she was in fact ill and figured she'd be back in a few weeks when she felt better, meanwhile he kept up the house and estate til she got back. After an unusually long separation, he would gently ask in letters to her if she was feeling improvements, he would say he missed her but it wouldn't be enough because he wasn't crying his eyes out and she would assume he didn't understand. All it would have taken to fix her problem is "Honey, I'd like to spend some time with you. We haven't spent much time together lately". Done. If he doesn't make the effort after that then yeah leave him if he doesn't care enough about you to make time for you but don't just start off assuming he knows exactly what the problem is without you saying anything! 

When all the shopping and parties in the world don't seem to satisfy her, Bertha eventually gives in to a brief affair with young, charismatic, barely legal Gerald Vaudrey... who just happens to be a cousin of hers... and not one of those super distantly related cousins either :-S.  For one that accused her husband of being under-educated, I question Bertha's math skills. After giving in to Gerald's flirtations, she's constantly exclaiming "I'm old enough to be your mother!" But she's not exactly in How Stella Got Her Groove Back territory here :

For a moment she was overjoyed, but quickly she remembered that she was married, that she was years older than he; to a boy of nineteen a woman of twenty-six must appear middle-aged. She seized a hand-mirror and looked at herself, she took it under the light so that the test might be more searching, and scrutinized her face for wrinkles and crow's-feet, the sign of departing youth. "It's absurd," she said,"I'm making an utter fool of myself."

Okay... so it's not the fact that she's married, not the fact that it's her cousin she's goofy over, no it's the fact that she's a whopping 7 years older. Ultimately this relationship (big shock here) runs it's course and Bertha seems to reevaluate her marriage. Is it possible that she might one day see that there is more than one way to express love? That true love, and ultimately marriage, isn't always a torrential flood of passion but sometimes just a quiet, peaceful brook of blissful appreciation for the one person you find that best understands you? Not every day is going to be Wuthering Heights epic, some days it's just about sitting on the porch, feeling the breeze and watching fireflies with your love and just appreciating all the good that's come into your life! :-)

{Love You Honey!}

"Woman Reading" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1877)

So readers, til next post, I leave you with this quote about Mrs. Craddock that blew me away in how it perfectly explained my love of old books!

Bertha found reality tolerable when it was merely a background, a foil to the fantastic happenings of old books; she looked at the green trees, and the song of birds mingled agreeably with her thoughts still occupied with the Dolores Knight of La Mancha, with Manon Lescaut, or the joyous band that wanders through the Decameron. With greater knowlege came greater curiosity, and she forsook the broad highroads of literature for the mountain pathways of some obscure poet, for the bridle track of the Spanish picaroon. She found unexpected satisfaction in the half-forgotten masterpieces of the past, in poets not quite divine whom fashion has left on one side, in the playwrights, novelists, and essayists whose remembrance lives only with the bookworm. It is a relief sometimes to look away from the bright sun of perfect achievement, and the writers who appealed to their age and not to posterity have by contrast a subtle charm. Undazzled by their splendor, one may discern more easily their individualities and the spirit of their time; they have pleasant qualities not always found among their betters, and there is even a certain pathos in their incomplete success.